At California’s second biggest lake, the latest fallout of drought is gruesome

At California’s second biggest freshwater lake, the latest fallout of drought is gruesome: dead fish in nearby stream beds that have run dry.

Some of the foot-long, silvery Clear Lake hitch have been decapitated by racoons and other varmints, which have had easy pickings of the beached minnow.

The grim sightings by Lake County and tribal crews surveying the lake have prompted a rescue effort over the past week to save hitch, a threatened species found only in this region. Many are still stranded in what little water remains in the channels amid larger questions about the fate of the fish and the state of drought-diminished Clear Lake.

“We’re called Lake County, right?” said Marina Deligiannis, deputy water resources director for the county’s Water Resources Department. “We rely on this lake for a lot of things. … Low water levels impact everything, whether it’s the hitch, the (recreation) economy or agriculture.”

About 100 miles north of San Francisco, Clear Lake, like other big lakes in the West, has suffered from too little inflow amid three years of drought. Heading into the warm, dry summer months, water officials expect the nearly 70-square-mile lake to drop to levels not seen since the punishing dry spell of the late 1970s.

More than two dozen Clear Lake hitch were found dead in dried-up Adobe Creek in Lake County, as on a late April day. Rescuers are trying to save fish still stranded in pools within the creek bed.

Alix Tyler, Big Valley Rancheria

About 60% of county residents get their water from the lake. Boating and bass fishing, which have become synonymous with Lake County, also depend on the lake and its bounty of water as does a budding wine industry.

And then there’s the hitch.

A crew with the county Water Resources Department last week spotted more than two dozen of the fish lying dead in dried-up sections of Adobe Creek. The creek, which normally runs to Clear Lake’s southern shore, is one of the most important of a handful of waterways that the hitch swim up each spring to spawn.

Fortunately, some stretches of Adobe Creek still contained water, as well as fish, though they were essentially trapped in the landlocked pools.

Aware of the of the limited population of the hitch — maybe a few thousand spawning each year — county officials coordinated with state and tribal experts to launch a rescue.

“It’s incredible how many fish were left up there,” said Ryan Carey, a water resources technician for the Lake County. “We just happened to be in Adobe Creek at the right time.”

The quickly assembled team of rescuers used backpack electrofishers, an instrument that sends a current through the water and shocks the fish without harming them, to stun the hitch into submission and then collect them in nets.

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